Monday, April 06, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: The Cleansing of the Temple

Just a change of title; no new material.

The synoptic tradition places Jesus' cleansing of the Temple on Monday of Holy Week (Mk. 11:12-19). Here we see that, instead of attacking the hated Romans, Jesus attacks the Temple system--more specifically, the system of money changing and sacrifice selling that had grown up around the Temple. It's difficult to say what effect this would have had on the Jewish populace, and specifically, the crowds who had hailed him as King the day before. The money changers (who exchanged Roman coinage, necessary for commerce in the world at large, for Hebrew shekels, to pay the Temple tax) and sacrifice sellers (who sold animals suitable for sacrifice) provided services that were both useful and extortionary. And the scripture records that the crowds were "amazed at his teaching" (Mk. 11:18), so some of the reaction was evidently positive.

And yet there was a subtext to Jesus' message that would have been disturbing. He specifically recalls Isaiah's prophecy that the Temple would be "A house of prayer for all nations." The word "nations" (ethnoi) was used specifically for Gentiles, and the area of the Temple complex that the money changers and sacrifice sellers would have been set up in was the Court of the Gentiles. So the area that had been specifically set up for people from other nations to have access to God had been co-opted by those who had something to gain from exploiting the sacrificial system. (We'll leave aside the point that the court of the Gentiles itself was the outermost court--a type of inclusion that really meant exclusion and made a mockery of Isaiah's words, "my house," not an outer courtyard surrounding the house, "will be called a house of prayer for all nations.") It was probably easy to justify elbowing out the Gentiles: there were presumably few Gentiles using it, so it could be rationalized as utilizing wasted space.

The issue of separation from the Gentiles is a thorny one. Throughout the Old Testament, God had told Israel that they must be separate from the rest of the nations, and for much of that time, Israel didn't want to be. They wanted a king, just like all the other nations. They were constantly being drawn into idolatry and the religious practices of surrounding nations. This continued until the Babylonian captivity, when Israel was finally made to understand that they had to be separate. With the conquests of Alexander the Great and the advent of Hellenism, the party of the Pharisees ("separated ones") developed as an anti-Hellenistic movement devoted to preserving Judaism and keeping it separate from encroaching foreign cultural forces. E.P. Sanders argues that the aspects of the Law that were focused on most strongly during the Second Temple period were those aspects--sabbaths, dietary laws, circumcision--that separated Israelites from the Gentiles. It is in this milieu that Jesus brought back the issue of the inclusion of the Gentiles prophesied by Isaiah.

As later history would show, the developing Christian church would continue to have problems with the assimilation of the Gentiles. It turns up in Acts 11, when Peter is questioned about evangelizing the household of Cornelius. It returns in Acts 15, when a council is convened to determine whether Gentile converts must be required to follow the entire Law of Moses. It recurs in Acts 21, when Paul returns to Jerusalem and is accused of subverting Judaism and defiling the Temple by bringing in Gentiles. Once again, we are in a position where it is difficult to appreciate the import of the Bible's words: the Jew/Gentile issue is no longer a live one in the Church (largely because the Church has long since become predominantly Gentile). It's easy to say, "Yes, Paul was right to argue that Jewish laws shouldn't be mandated for Gentile believers." The question is, what roadblocks have we erected that present artificial stumbling blocks for other groups to receive the gospel?

Exclusion seems to be a perennial feature of human nature. Everyone wants to belong to an "in" crowd, and the existence of an "in" crowd necessitates that some must be defined out. It's both amusing and saddening to see someone protest bitterly against "cliques," only to cease protesting upon inclusion in one of them. Jews divided humanity up into Jews and Gentiles; Greeks divided humanity up into Greeks and barbarians. It's easy to cheer Jesus on for opposing religious profiteering; a little harder to examine the "in" crowds that we may have created for ourselves and the cultural roadblocks we may have erected against others. "Neither do I condemn you" and "Go and sin no more" are both parts of the gospel. But the first one comes first.

No comments:

Post a Comment